THE CAFÉ RACER – OPTIMISED RACERS OF YESTERYEAR
With visionary motorbikes and a lot of heart, the British post-war youth once indulged in the intoxication of speed. Since then, their conversions have thrilled enthusiasts around the globe. The subculture became an influential genre that has lost none of its appeal to this day. The café racer, a stroke of luck in motorbike history.
What began on the streets of England in the 1950s is now a worldwide phenomenon. Café racers, i.e. undisguised motorbikes with a sporty orientation, made for a sensual riding experience, individual, reduced and optimised, enchant every petrol head. Because with slim lines and transparent technology, the historic model has established itself as a perennial favourite and long since also as a blueprint for naked street motorbikes.
THE CONCEPT OF THE CAFÉ RACER WAS RADICAL BACK THEN. TODAY, THE BIKES ARE INSPIRING AND ABSOLUTELY TIMELESS
But café racers are not just machines. They are also the name given to all riders who like to lie flat over the tank in tight leather at full throttle and get the last out of their machines as they jet from café to café. At least that’s how it was in the early days of the scene, when wild British youth rebelled. Against the fustiness of the 50s and a value system that simply wasn’t up to date after the war. The young movers and shakers of those days wanted one thing above all – to get out into the world as quickly as possible. The café racer was the ideal vehicle for this. Unlike in the USA, for example, where hot rods became a youthful dream, the most an adolescent European could afford was a motorbike.
So the Ace Café in London, a simple restaurant for truckers, became a Mecca for motorbike hot rodders. And far away from the British capital, similar meeting places sprouted up like mushrooms. People met in inexpensive cafés on the outskirts of the city, marvelled at the latest conversions and tested the backyard racers on public roads.
“THE TON” – A SPEED OF 100 MILES PER HOUR (161 KM/H) – WAS THE DECLARED GOAL OF THE CAFÉ RACERS
A sanctuary that seemed almost unattainable in view of spongy cross-ply tyres and timid drum brakes. The bravest racers made it anyway. But there were plenty of challenges along the way, whether motivated opponents, oil-smeared roads or the police. It was a spectacle when, with the best song from the jukebox, the engines also roared and the crowd hooted at the start of a “Record Race”.
As the winner, you had to be back on the pitch before the end of the record. Fame and honour then went to the bravest. The higher-faster-further of those days had gripped the youth. They experimented and tinkered like never before. Together with progressive rock’n’roll and the appropriate fashion, this motorbike cult developed into a real movement that later became politicised and led to punk, rock and other subcultures.
The café racer as a motorbike remained with us. It emancipated itself into a serious genre in the following decades. The image of rebellion and fun competition is still an integral part of this identity today, but – like many other trends- it has been appropriated by the industry. Countless motorbike manufacturers took up the concept of the sporty road racer and created production motorbikes that have long since become legends in their own right.
ALMOST EVERY MANUFACTURER HAS A CAFÉ RACER IN ITS PORTFOLIO
Honda’s CB series, Triumph Bonneville and Kawasaki Z1 might never have existed without the youngsters from Britain. And in the broadest sense, modern classics like the Ducati Monster or Triumph Street Triple are also legitimate heirs to the British underground. Not to mention countless models that today are explicitly offered under the Café Racer label. The sporty style is still in vogue. And there is hardly a model that has not been converted into a café racer somewhere – whether Harley Sportster or Honda Monkey.
But the real icons remain the machines of the early years. Their models were the contemporary racing machines of the Tourist Trophy on the Isle of Man and the Motorcycle World Championship, piloted by heroes like Mike Hailwood or Geoff Duke.
At that time, British manufacturers were still considered innovative and were able to score points on the tracks – found food for the hungry teens and twens, for whom a Norton Manx or BSA Gold Star was the ultimate sports machine. From then on, pretty much every basic machine became a café racer.
Even supposedly unsuitable models were given the typical treatment: aluminium tank, handlebar stubs, tight seat, more power. Those who could afford it packed the powerful engine of a 650cc Triumph or Vincent into the featherbed of a Norton. Norvin or Triton conversions were considered real weapons among café racers back then – and today they are at least as sought-after as contemporary modified Japanese bikes that revolutionised the market forever from the end of the 1960s onwards.
Of course, in the here and now, the question arises as to whether these historical one-offs are original or merely novel. Because time and again there are also fakes of supposedly authentic café racers from the early years of the scene. But the market seems to have realised long ago that the history of motorbikes would be much poorer without café racers.
Because the courage and creativity of the daredevils of yesteryear have changed our motorbike world forever. We should be grateful to them for that.
Photos Sven Wedemeyer, Ace Café London
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